In Vietnam, a Gateway for Bird Flu
30 July 2006

Article by Alan Sipress, Washington Post Foreign Service
Published: 30 July 2006

"DONG DANG, Vietnam - The smugglers first appeared on the distant ridgeline and then, like ants, streamed down a dirt track carved from the lush, sculpted mountains that separate Vietnam from China. As the figures grew closer, their stooped posture became visible, backs heaving under bamboo cages crammed with live chickens.

On the road below, two young men identified by local officials as lookouts buzzed past on red dirt bikes, slowing down to check out a reporter and his government escorts who had stopped to watch. One man produced a two-way radio and started speaking urgently. Though his words were inaudible to the visitors, within moments the figures on the hillside melted into the brush.

These traffickers haul more than 1,000 contraband chickens a day into Lang Son, one of six Vietnamese provinces along the Chinese border, flouting a chicken import ban. In doing so, heath experts say, they have also repeatedly smuggled the highly lethal bird flu virus from its source in southern China into Vietnam, where the disease has taken a devastating toll on farm birds and killed at least 42 people since 2003.

As bird flu continues to spread across the Eastern Hemisphere, international health experts warn that illegal trade in poultry, poultry products and other birds is often the primary cause.

"Both between and within countries, commerce is an incredibly important factor," said Juan Lubroth, chief of infectious animal disease for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. "We try to press with governments that it has to be controlled or managed better. But like trafficking in humans, weapons and drugs, with poultry it's not any easier."

The virus has already ravaged farm birds and wildfowl in more than 50 countries. At least 230 human cases have been recorded, and more than half have been fatal. Health officials fear that a new form of the virus that can jump easily from person to person will develop, bringing on a global epidemic among humans.

Vietnamese veterinary officials disclosed in April that they had found bird flu in a sample taken from smuggled chickens confiscated in Lang Son during a bust on the border. Days later, officials in the remote, neighboring province of Cao Bang reported the virus in poultry samples taken from three farms on the Chinese border after dozens of chickens had started dying and smuggling was suspected. These two episodes were the first official cases of bird flu in Vietnam since December.

In May 2005, researchers had already found evidence that smuggling was bringing in the bug: They isolated a strain of the H5N1 virus that was new to Vietnam but similar to one common in Guangxi, just over the mountains from Lang Son.

Lang Son's jagged border with China runs for about 150 miles through angular, misty mountains with craggy cliffs that seem drawn from a stylized painting...The bootleg poultry business turned lucrative two years ago after Vietnam started slaughtering about 50 million chickens to contain its bird flu epidemic. The resulting shortage of chicken meat, a prime source of protein for the Vietnamese, sent prices soaring on their side of the border.

Much of this trade takes place at night. But in the broad daylight of a recent afternoon, more than a dozen smugglers were descending a steep, dark earthen track outside the border village of Dong Dang. Even after the motorbike lookouts apparently sounded the alarm, more traffickers appeared over the ridge from China. Others were spotted walking down another, narrower path largely concealed by trees about 100 yards away.

The local officials warned that the smugglers could turn violent, attacking outsiders with stones or firearms. According to Vietnamese press reports, chicken smugglers in Lang Son have battled soldiers trying to intercept them. In one instance, five soldiers were injured by stones, and their car was destroyed.

Do Van Duoc, director of animal health in Lang Son, explained that the huge difference in prices on opposite sides of the border makes for a flourishing business despite the ban on poultry imports from China. Prices fluctuate, but on average, chicken that sells for 30 cents per pound or less in China can fetch a dollar or more in Vietnam.

Duoc said the high cost of poultry in Vietnam also reflects the expense of importing vaccines and other medicine to combat bird flu. Chinese farmers are able to keep costs down because of the vast scale of their poultry industry and the inexpensive supply of feed and domestically produced vaccines, he said.

Moreover, Duoc alleged that Chinese farmers unload chickens from areas struck by bird flu at bargain prices. In some cases, he said, the farmers tell Chinese authorities they have culled their flocks to earn government compensation and then peddle the birds to smugglers.

"They try to get as much money as they can," he said. "They are selling sick chickens because of the outbreak."

China's Agriculture Ministry confirmed that poultry was being illegally transported from Guangxi into Vietnam. In response to written questions, ministry officials said that an investigation by Guangxi animal health investigators had discovered smuggling from three areas close to Lang Son province but that there were no reports of this poultry being infected with bird flu.

Chinese agriculture officials said government veterinarians were working with customs and border defense officers to stop the illicit trade. Chinese police have confiscated more than 23,000 chickens and 3,500 ducks this year, officials said.

The syndicates running the smuggling rings pay local villagers about 30 cents a bird to haul the contraband along mountain trails that in some cases snake for more than 10 miles, said Nguyen Thang Loi, director of market inspections in Lang Son. Some smugglers, especially women and children, can carry only a few birds, but fit men haul as many as 20 at a time. Over the course of a week, the earnings can far outstrip the salaries of animal health officers, inspectors and others charged with stemming the trade. The traffickers are finding new ways to move even larger amounts. In recent weeks, Loi's inspectors captured a pair of makeshift wooden carts that were being used to transport up to a ton of chickens at a time along railroad tracks running through the mountains.

Once the smugglers descend the slopes, their haul is often moved by motorbike to local farms that serve as stopover points, Loi reported. From there, the chickens are loaded onto trucks for transport, in many cases to the markets of Hanoi and points farther south, Loi and animal health experts said.

An average of up to 1,500 birds are slipped over the mountains into Lang Son each day, Loi reported. Along the entire Vietnam-China border, the total could be thousands more, according to Vietnamese and international livestock experts.

Worldwide, the trade in illegal poultry and other birds is extensive, said Lubroth of the U.N. agriculture agency, though the specific scope is unknown.

This business includes large-scale commercial shipments of uninspected meat, often from China, to destinations as diverse as Europe, Africa and the United States. Last month, U.S. inspectors discovered 2,000 pounds of frozen chicken, duck and geese smuggled from China in a Detroit-area warehouse that supplies Chinese restaurants and Asian groceries in southeastern Michigan.

In Africa, commerce spread the virus from Egypt to Sudan and likely took it to other countries on the continent, Lubroth said.

As long as high prices in Vietnam make the illicit chicken trade lucrative, it will continue, said Jeffrey Gilbert, an animal health specialist in the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's Vietnam office. "You can put helicopters up there, really mobilize the army and put all kinds of resources in, and it would still go on," he said. "It's like the Ho Chi Minh Trail."

(Researcher Vivian Zhang in Beijing contributed to this report.)"